Archive for the ‘society’ category

Not fit for women (or men)?

July 22, 2014

Around this time of year many universities will have been holding graduation ceremonies. And as the graduands approach the stage, it will have been noticeable that in some disciplines they were predominantly of one gender. Engineers and computer scientists will more often than not have been men, while nurses and teachers will have mainly been women. In some subjects – say, law – the gender gap is also widening, with women making up the majority. Is this an avoidable state of affairs, or something we just have to put up with?

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow suggests the latter. As reported in the Herald newspaper, he has argued that ‘we probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses’, and that initiatives to bring about another outcome ‘completely deny human biology and nature.’ He also said that it should not matter to us whether the person who fixes our computers is a man or a woman. Rather, in a free society we should let people choose their professions without worrying about what that produces in terms of gender balance.

Of course historically there have been other implications. A profession dominated by women has tended to be an under-valued one, with lower pay and fewer opportunities for career development. In addition, such professional imbalances tend to perpetuate themselves as they restrict the availability of role models to persons of the other sex. Whether these patterns may change as women take hold increasingly of previously male-dominated careers such as law remains to be seen. Equally, as evidence grows of the disengagement of some boys from education more generally, we will need to see whether this produces new social problems.

The patterns of university education have a more profound impact on society than many other things. Nobody expects or requires the student population across all courses to be perfectly gender balanced, but it is unhealthy for gender stereotyping to be reinforced in higher education. There are no quick or easy solutions, but it would be a good start for us to recognise that we still have a problem, and that while the specific nature of the problem may change from profession to profession, it still needs to be addressed.

Universities and cultural regeneration

June 24, 2014

My university, Robert Gordon University, will today launch a major report on how to promote cultural regeneration in the North-East of Scotland. This report was produced by a working group I established last year, chaired by Professor Paul Harris of RGU’s Gray’s School of Art. What follows below is the Foreword I wrote for the report.

‘From the very earliest days of higher education history, universities have been centres of cultural engagement and development. Towns and cities grew around higher learning establishments, and the scholarship nurtured in the universities often provided the roots for local arts and culture. That is still largely true today: almost every city that has a major cultural offering also has world-class universities.

I take the view, as Principal of Robert Gordon University, that this institution has a special relationship with its city and its region, and that it must give expression to this through its contribution to local culture and through its leadership in debates about how that culture and creativity can be further enriched. It was with this in mind that I established the working group that has produced this very valuable report.

It is my hope that the assessment of our cultural future set out in this report, and the recommendations made therein, will provide a valuable contribution to the future of the North-East of Scotland more generally.

I am most grateful to Professor Paul Harris and to the team which produced this report. Moreover, on behalf of RGU I can give an undertaking that we will continue to work with the community of the North-East and with all other key stakeholders to ensure that together we can indeed create a new North.’

Universities have a responsibility to keep arts and culture alive. What RGU hopes and intends to do in the North-East of Scotland should be done by every university in every place. This allows us to be true to our intellectual mission, but also to give extra substance to the need for regional development and a good quality of life.

The RGU report sets out ten key findings and recommendations – more of which tomorrow.

Tales of a city

June 21, 2014

We often hear that London (and its surrounding area) unbalances the island of Britain, and in particular its economy. Perhaps it does. However, London is also one of the really great metropolitan centres of the world, and it is possible to lose oneself in its sights and sounds and the great energy of its people and its culture. I don’t get to do this often, but I always enjoy it when I do.

Here are some fairly random sights from a recent visit. First, we have the view from the London Docklands Light Railway, on its way from London City Airport to Tower Gateway. I have, as you will see, done some editing on this photo to turn it from a fairly ordinary scene into a kind of fantasy.

Docklands

Docklands

Here is a dwarf’s eye view of Big Ben clock tower, followed by one of Westminster Abbey.

The Palace of Westminster clock tower, containing Big Ben

The Palace of Westminster clock tower, containing Big Ben

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

And here are two London icons, albeit in one case in modernised form. The wonderful telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, alongside a modern version of London’s traditional Routemaster bus.

London icons

London icons

The style of these photos reflects my sense of London as a place of dreams. There are other cities that I love, not least Edinburgh and my own Aberdeen, and of course Dublin, and Paris, and Berlin, and Vienna, and New York – but London is drawn on such a wide canvas that it manages to be, in some ways, the whole world.

Going entirely online?

June 9, 2014

A major change in higher education over the past decade or two has been the erosion of the belief that there is just only one quality model of higher education. Until very recently everyone who mattered thought that the gold standard was set by universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and that institutions were good to the extent that they managed to create a learning experience that resembled the Oxbridge/Harvard model as far as resources would allow: intensive teaching in small groups on a well resourced campus, cutting edge research that prioritised ‘blue skies’ discovery.

The Oxbridge/Harvard model is in many people’s eyes probably still the gold standard, but then again even those universities have changed what they offer, or at least some of what they offer, quite considerably. And this week one of those that was always thought to base itself on the Oxbridge model, Trinity College Dublin (or whatever it is now called), announced that it would later this year offer its first ‘MOOC’ (‘massive open online course’), something it is doing just as a greater degree of scepticism regarding MOOCs is beginning to take hold in the higher education community.

Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do. A student survey carried out recently on behalf of the Laureate Group of universities (a global network of institutions that focus on vocational courses, of which the University of Liverpool is a member) produced some interesting results. The students who took part on the whole predict (and, it appears, want) universities of the future to offer their courses online, for free, and in flexible settings without fixed times for classes or other formal engagements.

They may of course be right. But if they are, almost every assumption we have made until now about higher education will need to be revised. In particular, higher education would be individualised, with the removal by and large of the notion of a community of learning based on a campus experience. That has implications for pedagogy, for assessment and for student engagement; but it would also necessarily have a major impact on how academics interact and conduct their scholarship. If moreover the educational experience is to be completely ‘open’ – i.e. free – then that will create a framework in which quality and standards will be very hard to assure, in the absence of any obviously viable business model.

But if the students are right, one casualty would also be diversity in higher education. If everything goes online and high volume, then the capacity to develop institution-specific models with distinct missions becomes much more difficult, as content becomes increasingly driven by method.

I guess that my own perspective on this is that the higher education system should not just slip into some new learning model that has been made possible by technological advances, without engaging in a much greater assessment of what this would mean for the whole concept of a university. Of course we must welcome and harness technological innovation. But that does not mean that a particular use of it should be inevitable, bringing with it a whole sackful of unintended consequences.

A world in which students can expect online access and resources, an openness to lifelong learning at different stages of people’s lives and careers, and inclusiveness must be part of the future mix of higher education. There must be a considerable diversity of mission. But we must also ensure that the engagement of students and faculty with scholarship and inquiry  is not cast aside in a rush to adopt one particular model of educational provision.

Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?

April 22, 2014

One phenomenon of popular culture that suddenly erupted on the scene is the ‘selfie’. One can hardly call it a self-portrait, because that would suggest an artistic intention of sorts and an attempt to portray personality and appearance. Rather, the selfie is more of a casual capture of the moment, whatever that moment may be. It is everywhere: famously, Barack Obama and David Cameron shared the photographic frame in a selfie taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; and Ellen Degeneres provided some advertising for Samsung with her group selfie at the Oscars. And naturally you can wander through the pages of Facebook to see one of the selfie’s natural habitats. The onward march of the selfie has now even been recognised by the Oxford University Press, though not yet by its flagship, the OED.

Of course universities are not insulated from the world of selfies. Recently Bryant University in the United States asked students to stop taking selfies during graduations. And apparently the University of Alabama has tried to stop students from taking selfies in any setting at all ‘because it [is] immature and made them look bad’.

Universities sometimes have a difficult relationship with popular culture. There is often an instinctive suspicion of anything that has caught public attention in a sudden wave of enthusiasm, perhaps on the understanding that if it’s caught on too fast across society it will dumb down the academy if it enters there. While not every trend deserves academic recognition, some do. Charles Dickens was, in his day, part of popular culture, as was Shakespeare. The selfie may not generally be today’s manifestation of Rembrandt or van Gogh, but there is no need to get all worked up about it. In fact, I would love it if there were available for viewing today a collection of selfies from, say, 1914. Actually, if you look hard enough, there are.

Happy Easter

April 20, 2014

I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Easter. If the religious context of the day does not resonate with you, then I hope that you will enjoy some nice chocolate; and maybe take advantage of the fine weather (if that is what you are experiencing).

What’s at stake?

April 7, 2014

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? The word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis':

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.

How do we know what we know?

March 24, 2014

While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.


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